Nature Rules

Lynn Sloan Click to read more...

Lynn Sloan is the author of Principles of Navigation (2015) and the forthcoming story collection This Far Isn’t Far Enough (both Fomite Press). Her stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, American Literary Review, The Literary Review. She has a master’s degree in fine art photography and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally.

Metal screeched, the chittering birds stopped, then a thump: her bear, in the garbage that she’d dragged out to the road less than ten minutes ago. Bonnie grabbed her shotgun and hurried to the front door. At the end of her long driveway, trash trailed from the tipped-over can across the grass into the woods, the C-cure lid wobbled by the big oak, but her bear was gone. She fired skyward. Even if she got a bead on him, she would never shoot him. She and he—she was sure her bear was a he—they were engaged in a long-term game of mutual attention and respect. When the shotgun’s echo died, she righted the can and gathered the debris as the garbage truck rumbled into view at the bend in the road. Eleven o’clock, right on time.

Lenn jumped from the cab, re-tying the bandanna around his neck—he thought he looked sexy—and said, “He’s a sly one, that bear. You got the best can, best lid, these things”—he batted the useless bungee cords as he dumped her garbage—“and you keep it locked up. Only thing left is to quit making garbage.”

“Us humans, we make garbage, but I’m doing my best. Does he get into the Levitskys’ or the Nelsons’?” Her neighbors up the road, whose houses weren’t visible, even in the winter when the deciduous trees were bare.

“I’d say Mr. Bear likes you, Miss Bonnie. You got that special, single woman thing going.”

“Come on, Lenn.”

“Fancy cheese wrappers, smoked trout, maybe, nice smelling shampoo and body wash.” He stretched out “body wash.”

“Give it a rest, Lenn.” Lenn, married, with six kids under ten, was the island flirt.

“You get scared of Mr. Bear, you call me.” He mimed phone-to-ear as he jumped back into the cab.

“I’ll call Vardeen first.” His wife.

“Spoil sport.” He laughed and waved as he drove off.

That’s what Bonnie loved about this place: everyone had a take-it-in-stride attitude. Bear in the garbage. Bats. Mice drowning in the bucket under the leaky sink. Snow-bound winters. Frozen pipes. Nature rules, islanders said.

She’d moved north to the island two years ago, after her mother died and left her twenty thousand dollars. She’d wanted a new life, far from her kids, her crummy job in the county clerk’s office, and her mother’s depressing house on Chicago’s north side, which she’d also inherited, and where the kids, or at least Sadie lived, and where Milo came to recover each time he messed up. Training racehorses in Florida, he knew nothing about horses; organic farming in Missouri, a pot farm, probably, where the farmer refused to pay him, so he said; living on the beach in Kauai, where he panhandled for food. Milo had taken so much out of her. Sadie, too, always thinking she knew better than Bonnie how to do just about everything. A different life, that’s what Bonnie wanted, and some distance. The island, a day’s drive from Chicago, but a million miles away, was no vacation destination. Working quarries, managed forests, three taverns, the gas station/grocery store where she worked part-time, a post office, a medical clinic open one afternoon a week, all near the ferry dock. The only paved roads led from the dock to the quarries and the gated entrance to the forest. She bought a house eight miles out on a dirt road and, in the first six months, had been frightened by every sound. She bought a .410 shotgun, took lessons, practiced with soup cans on the stump out back. She learned to chop wood, plow her driveway, and thwack a scythe through the brush at the edge of the ever-encroaching woods. You don’t fight back, the woods will reclaim your place in a year, that’s what everyone said.

She set her shotgun on her kitchen counter and walked toward the sliding glass doors that overlooked her deck and the woods beyond.

She’d seen the bear just once. A sunny day. She’d been standing at these glass doors, and a black shape, big as the meat freezer in her garage, glided through the un-mown grass between her deck and the edge of the woods. The upper edge of the thing, a moving line, head and spine, she realized later, glistened with sunlight, even though the shape was so black that it looked like an inexplicable gap torn in the familiar. When it was gone, she understood it had been a bear. She waited for him to reappear, wanting to feel again the eerie thrill of his presence, but for days, she’d been too scared to go into her backyard. You got nothing to fear from bears, if you’re no threat, everyone said.

She touched the glass, watching the woods. That’s where he was now, maybe watching her.

The phone rang.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Sadie.

“My bear’s been in the garbage again.” Bonnie fixed her eyes on the aspens behind her target stump.

“Listen, Mom, I need to talk to you. It’s about Milo.” Sadie always spoke about her brother in a superior, big sister way, although they were only a year apart. Twenty-seven and twenty-six. Irish twins, Bonnie’s mother had called them, disapproving of two births so close together and Bonnie not married. Blaming Sandro for that, and for hijacking Bonnie to the godforsaken farm in Ontario. And blaming Bonnie, forever, when Sandro deserted her.

“Mom, promise me you won’t look up what Milo did on the internet.”

Milo on the internet? Witchy fingers threaded through Bonnie’s gut. “I don’t have the internet,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “A storm knocked out my connection.”

Sadie told her to sit down. Bonnie lied, said she was sitting as she remained at the sliding glass doors watching a dragonfly big as a hummingbird land on the coffee mug she’d left out by her deck chair.

“Milo’s been arrested. Eleven felony counts so far.”

Bonnie closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the glass. Was he dealing again?

Sadie talked about a van, a rental van, Nashville.

“Nashville?” Eleven felonies. How could that be?

“He thought he’d get into the music scene.” Sadie paused, waiting for Bonnie to say something. When she didn’t, Sadie went on. Milo didn’t have a credit card. You need a credit card to rent a van. He got angry, beat up the guy, took keys, stole a van, crashed into a Payless shoe store, broke into two houses, then beat up an old man. “He kicked an old man, Mom. Milo kicked an old man walking to church on Sunday morning.”

Sunday? What was today? She looked at the calendar on the pillar near the kitchen, trying to breathe. It must be Tuesday. Why hadn’t Sadie called her sooner? Needing air, she slid open the glass door. The dragonfly was gone. Birds cried, two of them, call and response, and the wind ruffled the aspens. Any light breeze could set the aspens dancing.

“Where is he now?” she asked. Her blue-eyed boy. Eleven felonies. This wouldn’t be like the time he stole the car. She’d gotten him off, but then he was sixteen. Or the time he lit a fire in the psych ward, when Bonnie’s attorney got him off by threatening the hospital with a negligence suit.

“The police have him. In Louisville.”

“Louisville or Nashville? I thought—”

“He was going to Nashville. Mom, are you getting any of this?”

“Where are you?”

“At home. Milo called me.” She meant, You’re his mother, he should have called you.

 “What was he doing in Louisville?”

“Good god, Mom. He’s been living in Louisville for six months.”

Bonnie didn’t even know where her son was living. The last time they’d talked was two months ago, maybe more. He’d phoned to ask for three grand to buy a couch. When she’d protested, he’d said, “This is a fresh start.” How many times had she heard this? “Great,” she remembered saying, she always tried to stay positive, “but why do you need a three thousand dollar couch?” Then he ranted. She didn’t understand, she didn’t care. How could he make something of himself if he lived in a homeless shelter? No, he wasn’t living in a shelter. He’d found an apartment. He was applying for jobs. Why couldn’t she see that he needed nice things? She asked if he was taking his meds. He hung up. She’d been worried but persuaded herself he’d call when he was ready. Not hearing from him was good. He was, after all, twenty-six.

“I’ll drive down,” she said to Sadie. “Tell me where to go. I’ll see what can be done.”

“Come here. We’ll go together.”

Bonnie said she’d catch the first ferry in the morning and arrive in Chicago around three, three thirty. After she hung up, she closed the glass door, shutting out the bird sounds and breeze, feeling as if the lid had been lowered on her coffin.

She phoned RJ at the store. Could he find someone to cover for her for a few days, maybe a week? Family emergency. Sure, he could make do. He was shaking his head, Bonnie knew, commiserating. Everyone here was kind.

In the closet behind her suitcase she saw the box storing the old videos. The player was long gone, but she hadn’t thrown out the tapes. She didn’t need to play them to remember.

*

The video opens with a green swath, the grass in her mother’s back yard. Bonnie is holding the camera. The image tips up to find a blurry Milo squatting beside the sandbox while Sadie’s four-year-old voice squeals at Bonnie to hurry. A frog. A frog. The picture bounces as Bonnie hurries toward Milo with Sadie’s hand entering the frame to wave her forward. Don’t touch it. Mommy’s coming.

*

In late afternoon, after she’d packed and put up the storm windows, a job she’d planned for next week, she heard a car in her driveway. It didn’t reverse out. She went to the window and saw a dark sedan with a heavy man standing beside the open driver’s door. Wanting directions? Interested in buying her black walnut trees? He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the low sun and hitched his shoulders in a familiar way. Sandro? Sandro, thickset and old? She’d never imagined him aging. She ducked back—he couldn’t have seen her—and reached for her shotgun. Edging close to the window again, she watched him straighten and turn slowly to shut the car door. What was he now, fifty-six? Twenty-four years ago was the last time she’d seen him, when he’d put her and the kids, Milo still nursing, on the train south to Detroit, then on to Chicago, to stay at her mother’s. He was to join them in two weeks, after he helped Clary sell the livestock and ready the farm for winter. When he didn’t come and didn’t come, Bonnie had believed he’d been hurt or kidnapped or lost his memory, was wandering in some urban hell or locked up in a charity hospital or a jail cell. When Clary finally answered the phone, she said Sandro had taken his share of the livestock proceeds and left, saying something about Vancouver. “But he’s supposed to come here, to me,” Bonnie had protested. After an interminable silence, Clary had said she didn’t know anything about that.

Now here Sandro was, standing in her driveway looking at her home. Jeans, dark shirt, boots, much the same, but heavier, his hair, dark and long-ish, like he was still trying to get women.

She propped the gun against the doorjamb, in reach—she wasn’t going to make a fool of herself—and waited. At his knock, she opened the door. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Hello, Bonnie.” The maritime accent she’d forgotten.

She shocked him, she could tell, even though his expression didn’t change. Had he expected the smooth-faced, compliant girl she’d once been? Now her skin was freckled and her brown hair salted with gray and short, no longer twisted into a braid that reached to her waist. Not bad for forty-eight, but she wished she looked better, to make him regret, and was furious at herself. Behind his thickened face—he probably drank too much—she could make out the ghost of the younger, handsome Sandro, ready to charm.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she repeated, holding the door. What she’d planned to say to him if she ever saw him again, the complaints and questions that she’d rehearsed and refined over all those years in the back bedroom of her mother’s house, adding new charges as the kids got older—and he not there—all that was gone. She had nothing to say to him, and she sure as hell didn’t want to hear what he had to say. The absence of explanation had become a comfort. The void of reason, that made sense.

He glanced at the shotgun in the shadows beside her. “You shoot strangers?” He was amused, she could see. A gun? She’d hated the guns on the farm, hated the fall slaughter, hated even the killing of hens for the stew pot.

“There’s a bear,” she said.

He nodded, uninterested, and studied her. He could look all he wanted and see nothing true about her. He inhaled and flexed his shoulders, as if preparing to say why he’d come. She crossed her arms to say she didn’t care.

“It’s Milo,” he said.

He knew. How the hell? She willed her expression to give nothing away. “What does that have to do with you?” Sadie must have found him. The damned Internet. Sandro wouldn’t have gone looking for them. Milo had to have been in on it, too. They, her children, had kept this from her. For how long?

“Sadie asked me to come,” Sandro said. “Believe me, I’m here for one reason only, for Milo and Sadie.”

“For Milo and Sadie? After not caring all the years when they cried every night for you.” Or when Sadie refused to go to kindergarten, or the year when the cool girls shunned her, or the time she broke her leg. Or when Milo had such a hard time losing his baby teeth and his one incisor never came, or when the calls from the school began and the run-ins with the cops, the drugs, the string of alternative schools, his dropping out altogether, the hellish business with the psych ward. “You know nothing about the kids. You abandoned them.”

*

Milo looks up, his little moon face pinched with nervousness and excitement. When he sees her, he bends forward, picks up a lump, lurches to his feet, and runs toward her, his stubby legs churning. She’s knelt on the grass to steady the camera and waits. He holds the frog smack in front of his chest, so proud, clutching it with both hands. A few feet in front of her, he trips and falling, he thrusts the frog at her, the frog’s head filling the frame, its mouth stretched wide, shooting out red, gouts of blood, as Milo squeezes the life out of him. A plunge to green as Bonnie drops the camera to reach for her blue-eyed boy.

*

“Jeesuz-H-Christ, Bonnie.” Sandro ran his fingers through his hair in the way that had once made her melt. Her gut clenched. “Listen, we have to talk. Can I come in?”

She wanted to pick up the gun and bash his face, but she reached behind her with a stiff arm and closed the door.

“We can talk out here.” She didn’t want him in her house, looking at her things and making assumptions about her.

He stepped back a few feet, maintaining the distance between them, and peered up at the expanse of siding that she’d re-stained herself in the heat of July.

“This isn’t where I thought you’d end up,” he said.

His smugness infuriated her. “Sadie’s calling on you is pathetic and desperate. She’s confused you with a real father. Say what you came to say and get going.”

His nostrils flared. “You’ve got a rulebook, don’t you, Bonnie, a fucking rulebook. You’ve gone from being a needy, play-by-the-rules girl, love-marriage-baby carriage-rules, to a self-righteous… What’s the word?”

“Woman? Grown-up woman?”

“Christ. Okay, I didn’t operate by your rulebook, but there’s more than one way of looking at things. Don’t forget that. I’m here, right this goddamn minute, because you and I need to talk before seeing Sadie, and Milo. If they’ll let us see Milo.”

Us?  “Have you seen them in the last two decades?”

“No.”

He turned away, his gaze traveling beyond the corner of her house to the woods. At the edge of her yard, behind the stunted pine she felt a presence. Her bear, she guessed, watching her now with this stranger. Had he felt Sandro’s threat?

“I’m not saying—”

“Not saying what? That you screwed them and me? This now, with Milo, has nothing to do with you. I’m driving down in the morning. I’ll handle it, like I’ve—”

“Do I have to say again that Sadie asked me to help? She asked me to talk to you and to come. I’m here because our children asked me. You better believe that you’re about the last…” An ugly red flushed his cheeks. He shoved his hands in his pockets and exhaled. “Sadie doesn’t need any of your shit making this even harder. When I got her call, I was on the road. She gave me this address, and your number, but I knew you wouldn’t pick up the phone if you saw my name.”

Sadie was a traitor.

He walked to the porch railing. “I have to get back to the Cities tonight, that’s where I live, but I’ll drive south by mid-afternoon, should arrive by late tomorrow at Sadie’s house.”

“The house belongs to me. That’s where I raised them, without you. My mother left the house to me.”

He said nothing, shifting to face away. She was being petty, that’s what he meant. That she’d raised the children on her own: that was irrelevant. She snapped her fingers. That was all any of it meant to him. At the sound of her fingers snapping, he turned, but she looked past him. Shadows had crept from the woods. Above the fringed top of the trees, the tip of the tallest spruce caught the slanting rays of the sun and glowed like polished brass. In there somewhere her bear was watching.

“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to see Milo,” Sandro said.

“Why couldn’t we?” Why had she said we?

“Bonnie, it’s cold. Can we talk inside?”

The wind had kicked up, swaying the grass beyond the porch. She shivered. A few times in the summer, she’d seen a trail of trampled grass circling her house, her bear keeping an eye on her. She knows where he sleeps: in the crushed ferns next to the tip-up, in the patch of broken Indian pipes under the beech, and on the far bank of the creek near her property line. Never has she seen any other sign of him, no scraps of her garbage dragged into the woods, no small half-eaten carcasses left behind. Her bear is immaculate. His life is clean.

She could sense him gazing at her.

Sandro shifted his weight, startling her. She said, “I’ll meet you at . . . Did you see that bar, right outside of town on the left, the Island Oasis? I’ll meet you there in a half hour.”

He locked his eyes on hers.

She looked through him, to what was ahead. The emphasis would shift from Milo’s disaster to Sandro’s arrival. The father returning to save the day would replace the disappearing dad. She would be the old grind; he would be the wondrous savior.

“I’ll be there,” she said to Sandro.

*

Off camera, Bonnie reaches for Milo to hug him close as the videotape records a tangle of grass. His flailing fists, his body fighting to twist away from her, his wild heart pounding against hers, all this goes unrecorded, as do his shrieks, “Don’t want you. Want my daddy. My daddy.”

*

Sandro backed out of her driveway, the headlights switching on.

She walked through the house, the sight of her fat couch, the lamps she’d made from dairy cans, the smell of fireplace ash comforting her—she had created a whole new life—and imagined Sadie phoning to say that Milo had not done whatever he’d done, it was all an ugly joke, and she was sorry. Or Sandro might disappear again. Or have a heart attack. Or Bonnie could. She put two fingers on her neck and felt the pulse of her stupidly reliable heart. Then she brought in the mug she’d left on the deck, closed the windows, washed her face, splashing her shirt, not caring, and stuffed her wallet and keys into her jacket. Outside the night air was cold, crisp, and clean, the moon just visible to the east.

She had come this far to get away, and it wasn’t far enough.

Her boots caught in the grass as she walked past her target practice stump. If her bear were anywhere near, he would understand in the way that animals understand that she was no threat. You got nothing to fear from bears, if you’re no threat. She just needed a few minutes to breathe unsullied air. At the edge of the woods, she turned to look back at her house, her kitchen lamp shining through the glass doors.

At the Island Oasis Sandro would be settling in, a Black Russian in front of him, chatting with Lucien behind the bar, or trying to charm the deadbeats who hung out there in the middle of the week. If she left now, he wouldn’t have cause to check the time and think she was being difficult.

Brambles snagged her jeans as she stepped into the forest. Ahead, all was shades of black and silent, the small animals gone quiet. Even the dumbest creatures know to dive for cover when menaced. They couldn’t know that she was no menace. She held her breath. No wind, no rustling, no bear pushing through the underbrush.

In a while, Sandro would be annoyed. He’d mask that, charmer that he was, ordering another silly girls’ drink, or several, and in an hour, he’d realize that she wasn’t coming, toss money on the bar, and drive out here to berate her. No. He had to get back to the Cities. He’d phone Sadie, tell her that Bonnie had refused to cooperate, and Sadie would think, as she always did, that Bonnie was a lousy mother. Even so, they would expect her to show up tomorrow.

And she might. She could sleep next to the tip-up, where the moss was thick and spongy, and in the morning, brush off the leaves she’d used for a blanket. She could catch the first ferry.

Or her bear might come for her. Would that be so bad? To die? To be free of the entangling feelings that had snared her since Sandro appeared, since Sadie called, since Milo began screwing up, since the beginning? Her bear would be quick. Skin flailed, muscle torn, bones broken, pain, excruciating pain, but over in a flash. Then . . . nothing. Such ease it would be to feel nothing.

She was tired of it all, tired of human beings, tired of being human. Nearby the little animals began to rustle and click. What they and her bear had was what she wanted: a constant present, no past, no future, only this inhalation, this heartbeat, this moment.

When she didn’t show up in Chicago, they would . . .what? They would have to travel to where Milo was, angry with her, but not worried, focused on Milo. With Sandro there would they even need her? In a week, maybe two, Sadie would phone RJ and he’d call the cops. They would find her kitchen light on and her car in the garage. They might think she’d gone off with someone. They’d ask questions of the Levitskys and the Nelsons, they’d check with the kids who worked the ferry. When that came up bust, they would search the woods. Her boots, shredded clothes, keys, skull, shattered bones. A tragedy Sadie and Milo would be told. Nature Rules.

Taking a deep breath, she stumbled forward, a vine grazing her shoulder, her eyes straining to see. In the distance a black patch broke free from the dark and thundered toward her. Branches thrashing, ground shaking, roaring everywhere in her head, veins, limbs, everywhere. She waited, terrified, eyes shut, hoping it wasn’t a deer.

 

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